Though one of the world’s smallest countries Estonia has one of the world’s largest repertoires of folk songs, and the Estonians have used their music as a political weapon for centuries. Songs were used as protest against German conquerors as far back as the 13th century and as an act of resistance against the occupying army of Russian czar Peter the Great in the 18th century.

Since 1869, Estonians have taken part in an annual song festival known as Laulupidu, where choirs from around the country come together for a multi-day celebration of choral music, with as many as 25,000 people singing on stage at the same time. These gatherings, which have attracted crowds of hundreds of thousands, have always been as much about the popular yearning for national self-determination as they have been about music.

During World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Estonia, and the Communists ruled it for decades with a hard hand. By 1988, things were changing. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced a loosening of control under the banner of perestroika and glasnost. Still, Estonia and much of the rest of Eastern Europe remained under Soviet domination.

Laulupidu became the cornerstone of the resistance against the Soviet occupation, when—in addition to singing the requisite songs praising the state and the Communist Party—the organizers defied Soviet officials by including banned nationalist songs and symbols.

In June 1988 protesters gathered on night on the grounds of the Tallinn Song Festival. They sang songs and waved flags that had remained hidden for nearly fifty years of Soviet rule. When no government crackdown ensued, more people showed up the next night, and still more the night after that. This spontaneous movement became known as the Singing Revolution.

On September 11, a protest event called ‘The Song of Estonia’ was held at the same location. More than 300,000 people snowed up, nearly a quarter of all Estonians. Political leaders were present and the public witnessed the first open calls for restoring the country’s independence. (A fire was lit that burned until independence was finally restored in 1991.)

By this point, even the ruling Communist Party had joined the opposition parties in calling for greater autonomy, with the Estonian government passing a declaration of sovereignty on November 16. Now having governmental sanction for their protests, the nonviolent struggle grew and many leading Communists eventually went on record in favor of independence. On August 23, 1989—the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet takeover of the three Baltic republics—as many as 700,000 Estonians joined half a million Latvians and one million Lithuanians in linking hands which ran the length of all three countries in a show of solidarity that became known as the Baltic Chain. The government declared it a public holiday and helped coordinate the massive protest. Over the next two years, mass gatherings continued and a series of parallel institutions, such as the Estonian Congress, emerged to build an independent state from the ground up.

In August 1991, following a hard-line coup in Moscow, Soviet tanks crossed into the republic in an effort to suppress further Estonian efforts to restore full sovereignty. The Estonian Congress and Supreme Soviet then formally repudiated Soviet legislation and declared Estonia an independent state. Estonians surrounded radio and television stations, including the critical Tallinn broadcast tower, as nonviolent shields which impeded their seizure by Soviet forces. The following day, the coup collapsed in Moscow and the new Russian leadership formally recognized the independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states two weeks later.

The Greates Music Stories Never Told, Rick Beyer